In the space of just six days, NASA has taken two big steps towards putting boots on Mars.
NASA is counting on SLS and Orion to help the agency establish a lunar base by the end of the 2020s – a key priority for the Artemis program. And, if all goes according to plan, the two vehicles will also enable even more ambitious feats, helping astronauts get to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s.
Last week, Nov. 10, NASA tested hardware that could help these crewed Mars missions land safely — an inflatable heat shield called LOFTIDwho launched into earth orbit with the JPSS-2 weather satellite and then returned to Earth. LOFTID survived its spirited return journey in top form, suggesting the technology has great potential to help land heavy gear on Marchthe team members said.
“The demonstration was a huge success,” Joe Del Corso, LOFTID project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, said at a press conference Thursday (Nov. 17).
“We now have the ability to both put heavy payloads into space and bring them back down,” he added. “These two successes are huge steps in enabling human access and exploration. We’re going to space, and we want to be able to stay there.”
LOFTID (short for “Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator”) is an inflatable heat shield designed to slow the descent of a payload through a planetary atmosphere via drag.
NASA sees this strategy as promising for its crewed Mars plans, which will require landing large payloads such as habitat modules on the Red Planet. Such a craft could tip the scales at around 20 tonnes – far too heavy for current Mars entry, descent and landing systems.
NASA One-Ton Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers, for example, have pretty much exploited the rocket-powered celestial crane method that brought them safely down through thin air on the Red Planet, agency officials said. (Parachutes were also part of these rovers’ landings, as they would with an inflatable heat shield landing system.)
Last week’s launch provided an ambitious test of this technology. LOFTID launched in a compact configuration with JPSS-2 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V Rocket. After deploying from the Centaur upper stage of Atlas V, LOFTID expanded to its full diameter of approximately 20 feet (6 meters), positioned for return to Earth, and took the plunge .
Initial inspections, conducted after the heat shield was removed from the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, suggested that LOFTID passed the test with flying colors. And an additional week of analysis only reinforced this conclusion.
“The vehicle is just stunning. It looks immaculate, and I really can’t say it enough,” said Del Corso. “It was surprising to me how beautiful the vehicle looked.”
Scientists and engineers will continue to analyze the data for about another year to get a full understanding of the test flight, LOFTID team members said.
The LOFTID project, which cost a total of $93 million over five years, is not the last stage of Mars’ inflatable heat shields, however.
A structure about three or four times wider than LOFTID would likely be needed to get a large payload like a habitat module safely on the Red Planet, project team members said. Scaling the technology so dramatically poses a number of challenges, which scientists and engineers can now begin to seriously evaluate after LOFTID’s successful flight.
“There’s a lot of work to do with that. [scaling up]; there are installation considerations with that that need to be addressed,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Missions Directorate, during Thursday’s briefing.
“But the roadmap will guide us on this and our future investments in this area,” she added. “We’re looking at that now, and really the near-term future for that. So yeah, that would be the next step for that capability.”
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).